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Commentary...Education and Family Poverty...Walter Smith

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Progress has slowed in narrowing the racial achievement gap in D.C.’s public schools and commentator Walter Smith says it’s another indication that it’s time for city leaders to address the issue of family poverty. Smith is Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed.

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The good news is that the wide achievement gap between D.C.’s black and white students has narrowed over the past three years. Eliminating this gap is a central goal and measure of the District’s effort to reform its education system.

The bad news is that the progress D.C. public schools have made in closing the racial academic divide, slowed this year. There’s no certain explanation for why progress has stalled, but many experts believe that urban school districts like D.C.’s, won’t close the black-white achievement gap until family poverty is addressed. This is because the harm that poverty does to families and communities profoundly affects a child’s ability to do well in the classroom.

In fact, research has shown time and again that economic hardship makes it difficult for children to learn. Unstable or unsafe housing, hunger, and chronic illness are problems that disproportionately afflict poor children and impede their success at school.

Right now one in three D.C. children lives in a poor family. And the poverty rate among D.C.’s black residents is more than three times that of white residents.

If the city intends to do all it should to increase poor children’s chances of succeeding in school, it must tackle the problems plaguing their families. Our city’s leaders must help make it possible for parents to work at jobs that pay enough to support a family. And they must help make basic needs that affect a child’s ability to do well in school affordable for low-income families, needs such as housing and nutritious food.

Benefits from reducing poverty will also extend well beyond student success. Increased work and wages among low-income residents will strengthen the city's workforce, grow the city's tax base, and increase the number of residents patronizing Washington's businesses. Lower poverty rates will also translate to reduced crime and lower expenditures on social services.

For all these reasons, D.C. Appleseed has joined more than a hundred other organizations and businesses in the Defeat Poverty D.C. initiative, an initiative asking candidates running for office to address D.C.'s poverty head-on and explain what they propose to do about it.

The District's major candidates for mayor: Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chair Vincent Gray, have placed education reform at the center of their campaigns. Both candidates will have a better chance of meeting their education goals for the District's students if they develop specific plans for reducing poverty among D.C. families. With just two weeks left until primary day, we hope that all the candidates will explain how they will tackle family poverty so that all of D.C.'s children have the chance to succeed at school.

I'm Walter Smith.

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